What Makes a Ritual

There’s a strange phenomenon that occurs when I go to Shabbat services: I get up early Saturday morning, I’m fully awake till halfway through the car ride, then my tiredness slowly begins to creep upon me until–right as I walk into the sanctuary–all my energy is gone and I feel like I could fall asleep right there. Ten minutes later, something miraculous happens–as if through osmosis, the energy of the environment, the sacred prowess of the place, the vibrancy of the life-borne prayers surrounding me, the Ner Tamid–the Eternal Light–hanging above the ark, begins to seep inside me until I’m fully alive with the intensity of the moment.

Then I get home and I need a nap. Go figure.

Something amusing also occurred today: Of the four Torah readers, I was the only one who wasn’t a rabbi. Go figure.

2.18 Rabbi Shimon taught:

Be careful when you recite the Sh’ma and the Amidah.

When reciting the Amidah do not make your prayer a prescribed routine but a plea for mercy and grace before God, as it is said, “For He is gracious and merciful, patient and abounding in love, taking pity on evildoers” (Joel 2:13).

Do not regard yourself as an evil person.

It’s not often I get to talk about prayers when I write these–more generally I get hung up on concepts, beliefs, the day-to-day, which seems to be the intent of the Pirkei Avot anyways: To teach us how to live our lives from day to day. The Torah may tell us how to live a righteous life and give us guidelines, but it’s the Pirkei Avot that takes the Torah’s 613 commandments and imbues them into every minute of our lives. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, although I love writing these no matter what the topic is, I’m glad I’ve got a chance to write about something a little less common in these today.

Since many of my readers probably have no idea what these prayers are, I’ll start by talking about them a bit before I move on to the actual teaching. For those who know already what they are, I hope my take on them is at least of some minimal interest to you. Finally, although that last bit about regarding ourselves as evil may be interesting, I don’t think I’ll get to that today. There simply are too many words to say on either end. But I’ll come back to that point, don’t worry there. Maybe next week, we’ll see. In either case: Today, we pray.

The Sh’ma is perhaps the most important six words in the Jewish religion: Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Hear O Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One. It’s said upon waking, in services throughout the day, and before going to bed. It is these six words we’re instructed to speak in the moment of death, to hold on our lips as the last breath escapes our body and carries our soul away. On the surface it is a blanket statement of the entirety of Jewish faith, the entirety of what set the Jewish people apart from all the other religions in the world at the time of its birthing: We believe in a singular deity, and we believe that God is the only deity.

But this is not a blanket statement.

There are two things that stand out to me.

The first deals with the words Sh’ma Yisrael. Sh’ma means “listen” and “Yisrael” does not mean the current state of Israel, but the people Israel–the descendants of Jacob who struggled with God and took that name for himself, the name that literally means “Struggled with God,” a name that instills in us not only the obligation to doubt and to question and to seek, but also to live life as a constant adventure, never for a moment a complacent stroll through the years. But I digress: I am not talking about the name, I am talking about the prayer.

When I think of these words, two things come to mind. The first is community: Hear, O Israel–we are speaking not to individuals, but to everyone. We are a whole, this nation, and not a single soul short of that. I have said it before, and I can and will say it again, now and in the future both, that it has been my gift in being raised Jewish that I have garnered this complete and total reverence for the function of community.

In studying sociology, psychology, leadership, the Pirkei Avot, and now government, I have learned the actual, factual ways that community serves us as individuals and as a whole, but there is a difference between book learning and experiential learning–and I think being raised Jewish has given me that invaluable experiential learning–and growing up, I never even knew it. I saw it, I lived through it, but I never understood what was happening. It was everything I ever knew. Why would I think it was anything other than ordinary, anything extraordinary? But now, now I see the wholeness of community for everything it’s worth–and I feel it all comes from these two words. Sh’ma Yisrael. Hear O Israel.

The second spawns from the last two words: Adonai Echad. The Lord is One. I was always taught that this passage meant we believe in only one God, which is true, but I think it goes deeper. I believe our God is one on a grander scale.

For some years in my teens I followed the Pagan path of Wicca, an earth-based religion full of personal rituals and reverence for the earth and a God and Goddess that personify both the gentle and extreme points of our universe through the guise of the most obvious human duality–the difference between male and female. One common belief in earth-based religions is a complete Oneness of the world–that everything is connected on a deeper level than what we see, that the sacred inherent in that to which we pray in inherent equally in that which prays–in us and the world around us. It’s a sense of monism, of animism, of my personal preferred theological classification, panentheism. The belief that God is part of us, that we are part of God, and that still, though encompassing all this infinity, God stretches beyond it as well. Adonai Echad. The Lord is One. We are all One.

The Amidah is the harder of the two prayers to describe. It is many times longer than just six words, and because of its breadth, I could probably write an entire book solely about this prayer–which I will not do today. The Amidah is the central act in any Jewish service. It begins with our spiritual ancestry–God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob–and then continues into all the prayers we could ever ask for: There are prayers we say for rain, for God giving life to the dead, for being our shield and our strength; there are passages added for special holidays and observances, passages asking for mercy and forgiveness, passages praying for peace. Perhaps the most amazing part of the prayer is how it’s conducted: We stand–that is, after all, what “Amidah” means!–and we bow, and we rise onto our toes in symbolic ascent to heaven, drawing ourselves closer to God. We begin together, praying as a community, and then continue in silence, turning our thoughts inwards to deeply connect ourselves to the powers that lie beyond.

It’s the silence I savor most. The prayer book my synagogue uses is full of passages and many alternate readings. I usually read through the English of these, not able to follow them in Hebrew, and every time we say it, I try to read a different set of paragraphs than I did the time before. One day I might read about peace and returning to the land of Israel; another day I might read about blessings, asking God to guard our tongues from slander and protect us from those who would cause us harm. There is always a new passage to be found, a new prayer to be asked–and all of it has always been there, waiting patiently to be discovered in an immensely personal moment.

I would think that if only two prayers could remain of all our prayers, the rest obliterated for eternity, the Sh’ma and the Amidah could very well be the most important to survive. They define us. The shape us. They belong solely to us.

So when Rabbi Shimon speaks of them, I’m not surprised. He tells us to be careful when saying them and then adds that our prayers in the Amidah shall be a genuine plea, not a routine speech. And after reading all of this, can you believe that his words are any less important or meaningful to us today than when he said them centuries ago?

We must be careful when we pray, no matter what faith we hail from, for when we let a ritual degenerate into a routine, we have lost our connection to it and it has lost its meaning to us. This is not prayer–this is not ritual. Ritual brings the sacred into the profane–the magical into the ordinary. If we lose that, we lose religion altogether. And whether you support organized religion or not, religions build cultures that build civilizations, and if we allow that culture to die, we have suffered an immense loss for civilization, for history, for the future.

Sometimes we might take our prayers for granted, forget what they stand for and why we stand to say them. Rabbi Shimon asks us to remember them and never stop making every prayer a special moment.

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4 thoughts on “What Makes a Ritual

  1. That’s also what I thought when I read “The Lord is One.”

    I want to mention that Hebrew grammar looks impeccably fluid. Of course my perspective is skewed by growing up with such linguistic bastards as English and Dutch, it still is remarkably calming to read.

    • Hebrew grammar (“dikduk” in Hebrew, which itself is an awesome word–and just so readers know, the “i” makes an “ee” sound and the “u” an “oo” sound) does have its nuances, at least in modern Hebrew (most prayers are not Modern Hebrew, but closer to Biblical Hebrew, if I’m not mistaken).

      These examples probably seem so fluid only on account of the fact that Hebrew, much like Latin actually, does not use the word “is” when in the present tense and doesn’t have definite articles. By definite articles, I mean there isn’t “a” or “an,” and “the” when used is not a word on its own. Instead, “the” is implied in one of two cases: The subject is a proper known or else has the prefix “ha.”

      Hebrew words are conjugated on three accounts–gender, number, and tense–much like words in Latin. Hebrew also has an extensive use of prefixes and suffixes. Some commonly used prefixes are “b/ba” (in), “l” (to), and “mei/ma” (from), while some common suffixes are used to denote possession–mine, his, theirs, etc.

      In sum, Hebrew grammar is fluid in the sense that there are usually a fair number of ways to say the same thing, but not so fluid in the sense that there is proper grammar to be observed.

      • For Dutch, we have genders in prefixes even though the words themselves are not learned to have genders, which makes Dutch a really complicated language. We use either “Die” or “Dat” as a Dutch equivalent to “that,” and it’s only through encyclopedic knowledge of what prefix to use that we can _guess_ what gender a word has. It really is as silly as it sounds.

        At least in German the prefixes correlate to readily known genders (for which there are actually rules) and constituent parts of sentences. I always envied German for being so structured despite having so many oddities and exceptions.

        Dutch really is just a confusing language, which makes it all the sadder we as native speakers frown on people not capable of distinguishing between, for example, those two random prefixes.

        Thank you for explaining this (dit) to me!

  2. Hebrew has words for “this” and “that” that are distinguished by gender (zeh versus zot and hazeh versus hazot) but there are firm rules for determining gender: If a noun ends in hei (the letter, not the sound) or tav (again, a letter) in its singular form, it is feminine; otherwise, it is masculine. Nouns are then assigned a plural form according to their gender: “-im” if masculine, “-ot” if feminine.

    However, there are exceptions to this rule. For example, “abba” means “father,” but the plural is “avot”–which has the feminine suffix! But it’s only one example among many; just perhaps the most hilarious of them all, in my opinion.

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